Tag Archives: teaching

Mondrian Sewing Project for Kids

First, I should tell you this Mondrian sewing project was a bit of a failure. Yes, you heard that right. I’m going to show you a project that wasn’t very successful.

Wait! Don’t stop reading.

I have a point, I promise.

Although this project didn’t work in a classroom setting, it might work for you and your children. It certainly worked well with my eight-year-old — at home. I always have my children test my sewing projects before I present them to a class. It took him awhile to complete, but his final project turned out rather well.

C, age 8, is almost finished with his Piet Mondrain-inspired wall hanging.

Combing Art History & Sewing

I thought I was being a clever teacher – creating a project that combined sewing (fun) with art (fun). I even did a little presentation on Piet Mondrian since most of the students weren’t familiar with his work.

My middle grades students (rising 5th – 9th graders) were good sports. They all worked on the project for a couple of days. Our class periods lasted for an hour, but it still wasn’t enough time (for most of them) to complete this project. And that’s when I realized it was a little too advanced for most of them. That’s why it took so long…and why most of the completed squares didn’t look that great. It required more precision than was appropriate for a beginning sewing class. That’s okay. I’m glad I realized it during the first session because I didn’t repeat the project with the second session of students.

Creative Sewing

In addition to the advanced nature of the project, there was another reason my students didn’t care for this wall hanging. They said all of their projects looked too much alike. They weren’t different enough. Even though I asked them to choose a blue, red, white and yellow cloth, there were a variety of fabrics to choose from. However, they were correct. Most of the projects looked pretty similar and they didn’t like that. It’s hard to argue with good reasoning.

Initially, I was inspired by this wall hanging tutorial by Kids-Sewing-Projects, but I adapted it for my needs and subject.

Mondrian Sewing Project for Kids

Here’s the good part: I created an instructional PDF of my Mondrian-inspired wall hanging.   Please download it for your personal use. Perhaps, you are looking for a Piet Mondrian-inspired wall hanging to go in your modern, abstract bedroom. Maybe, you are studying the artist and want to learn more. Either way, I hope you give this project a try.

 

 

Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids

I’ve missed blogging. It’s been a busy August and I’ve been occupied with other pursuits, but I am ready to get back to writing. (We’ll see if my schedule agrees with me). In the meantime, I wanted to call attention to my new Udemy class, “Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids.

Udemy Course: Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids

Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids

I created this course hoping that other teachers (and parents) will find a single starting point with regards to children’s “maker education.” So much of being a maker is a willingness to tinker, to explore and to learn on your own.  However, there’s a lot of information out there and it can be overwhelming.

In this course, I focus on three main areas: simple electronics, sewing and coding using MIT’s icon-based programming language, Scratch. Each section starts with a “take-apart” lesson, followed by some hands-on activities, and includes a follow up for teachers to integrate these lessons into the curriculum. There’s even a link to some of the research being done on maker education.

Simple Electronics

A year ago, I took a course from the Tinkering Studio. It satisfied the “missing link” of my maker education. I’ve been teaching computer programming concepts to elementary and middle school students for a few years, but was a little nervous about dismantling and building with electronics. Thankfully, after a year of tinkering – and acquiring a soldering iron – I now feel more comfortable introducing simple electronics to kids.*

At summer camp, my students used the circuit blocks to learn about electricity (and short circuited batteries by accident). They made marker bots and messed around with design principles. “Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids” adds to these projects by introducing a take-apart lesson which is then re-purposed into a sewn LED flashlight. I’ve also included an experiment for conductors and insulators, videos on how to make a simple flashlight, and my favorite way to make circuit art.

IMG_2293

Sewing with Kids

I’ve been sewing for many years; it was one of the first things I had to learn completely on my own. I had to design my own curriculum, find mentors, make mistakes and practice deliberately.  This was my first (unknown) foray into the “maker movement.” These days – with kids, work and homemade dinners – I don’t sew nearly as much as I did fifteen years ago.

Instead, I’ve been sewing with my own children. In a Montessori primary curriculum, we introduce sewing at age three. These activities are broken down into steps (stringing, making a knot, sewing with burlap, etc). As my children grow, we continue to sew, but the projects are more advanced. This past summer, I also taught sewing at our local “college for kids” camp.

I think sewing is a key component of maker education and I’m excited that it’s part of the course, “Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids.” Hand-sewing topics include: taking apart a t-shirt, making a wristband, making a LED flashlight and incorporating sewing into a classroom.

sewing with kids - learning stitches

With an ink pen, I draw out dashes and dots to teach two simple stitches.

Code to Learn with Scratch

Although I’ve been sewing for a number of years, I came to computer programming and robotics through my oldest son. At the age of six, he said he wanted to be a robot engineer. I set out to find hands-on materials that broke down advanced concepts. I stumbled on Lego Education kits and the icon-based programming language, Scratch. I started a business for others kids who were interested in robotics. For the past three years, I have been teaching classes and hosting summer camps.

Along the way, I noticed that many kids came to Scratch because they loved video games. They wanted to make their own – so we did. But we also created stories, conversations and short animations. While creating these programs, the students were learning programming concepts – without even trying.

In my Udemy course, I demonstrate how to use Scratch, but I focus on simple, creative projects that you can do with your students. For upper elementary and middle school students, the sky is the limit. They can create all sorts of games, animations and stories that can reflect their learning. They can use Scratch as a paintbrush to demonstrate their knowledge. Learning can be creative and fun.

I had a lot of fun creating the course and I learned a lot. About everything. Especially movie editing and breaking down concepts. If you are interested in taking the course – “Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids” – use this link for 50% off.

pciture of a projected screen with a scratch project

In the computer lab – sharing projects was an important part of the class.

*With regards to electronics – I still have a lot to learn. My soldering is ugly and I need more practice. As my oldest child takes more of an interest in electronics, we’ll learn this stuff together, but in the meantime, we’re happy to stay at the level of batteries and bulbs.

 

 

 

Science of Learning

Middle school, high school and college students: put down those textbooks and stop cramming for tests. There’s more to the science of learning than re-reading a textbook. Instead, space your learning, test yourself repeatedly (with flashcards), and try to solve a problem BEFORE you understand the question. These actions have been shown to increase recall, which usually means a higher test score.

While you’re at it – it would be helpful if you had a growth mindset and a lot of curiosity.

Picture of the book, make it stick: the science of learning

Science of Learning

The authors, cognitive researchers (and one storyteller), neatly summarize current learning research. They weave results throughout the book – using stories and repetitive recall – all while interleaving new information with the old.

It’s been a fascinating read and there are a number of small changes any teacher can make to assist students with learning and remembering content.

Understanding matters

It’s difficult to be creative and use information in a new way if can’t remember, or don’t understand, the basics. For example, it’s difficult to apply multiplication to a new situation (or to learn from your experience), if you don’t know that 3 x 2 = 6. The authors are not in favor of ‘drill n kill,’ but they indicate a need for basic understanding before one can apply knowledge in a creative way.

Learn two different but related tasks at the same time

I struggle the most with this bit of research. The authors note that focusing on one area (e.g. determining the volume of a cube), is not as valuable as trying to figure out the volume of a cube, a cylinder and a cone – all at the same time. So, instead of getting the formula for the cube down pat and then moving on, they suggest learning all of the formulas at once. The learning will be slower, but later recall is shown to be stronger than if you focus on one topic before moving on. The theory is that we do not apply our learning in isolated ways. Instead, we may have to figure out the volume of geometric solid and we don’t know which one it will be. By practicing all of the formulas, we are better equipped to know which solution to choose.

New learners are better than experts at teaching

Although I learned this tidbit during my own experiences, it was nice to see it validated by research. It turns out that students are much better at figuring out how to teach content than a subject expert. The reasoning is that experts have internalized the ‘basics’ of their subject, whereas new students recognize where they struggle with learning. They know which concepts are more difficult because they themselves are trying to process the information.

Feedback is more important than grading

As an educator, I’ve always hated the way tests are used for high-stakes decisions. Are we testing for knowledge acquisition, or do we want to use the tests to help students learn more? It turns out that feedback is incredibly important. Teachers know this, but can’t always put it into practice. Testing is a valuable tool, but there needs to be accurate feedback for students’ knowledge to grow.

“Test” your students often

But not with such high stakes. The authors found that frequently asking students to recall information interrupted the process of forgetting. It was much more effective than re-reading material (and highlighting, etc.). Asking yourself questions – without looking at the book – was better at solidifying the information in your brain. At the start of class, teachers can ask questions about the day’s topic of discussion. Students can create flashcards to “quiz” themselves to keep from forgetting the information.

Spacing

Immediate testing isn’t good at predicting later recall, however, spaced testing does a great job of strengthening recall. For teachers, introduce new material and then allow a day to pass. Test your students – ask them questions at the start of class – to strengthen their recall of previous material. I think I might put a note on my calendar a week later, two weeks later, etc. to remember to bring up the topic again.

Try to solve the problem BEFORE you know how

I find this particular tidbit to be quite fascinating. The authors’ discovered that when learners tried to answer a question – before they knew the correct way to do so – it strengthened the learning on the subject. So, try to solve that hard math or sociology problem and then learn about the topic. I wonder it has to do with alerting your brain to pay attention. It sounds like something from Making Thinking Visible.

Encourage a Growth Mindset

We could also label this section, “mind over matter.” If you think you aren’t good at something, you never will be. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Carol Dweck’s research on having a ‘growth mindset’ has shown that students who are praised for effort work harder on the next challenge. Those who were praised for being smart and failed to solve the problem, gave up on the next challenge.

Learning something new is supposed to be hard

As much as educators like to make learning fun and help students find interest in what they are doing, there comes a point when we acknowledge that making new connections in your brain can be a difficult task. But, hopefully we can let students know that it’s supposed to be hard, but that if you keep trying it will get easier.  Teach them how the brain works.  “Try, try and try again” is an old adage that has fallen out of favor in our high-stakes world of testing. We expect students to learn, retain information without giving appropriate feedback, and then we get all huffy when they give up. Perhaps, rather than grading students on content, we could grade effort. Elementary school assessment could be portfolio-based, thus encouraging a growth mindset.

The brain is not a muscle, but the more we use it, the more we deliberately practice, the stronger our neural connections become. Since we adopted a growth mindset four years ago, we have seen remarkable effort and retention in our own lives (and not just for our children). Now, when French learning gets hard, I think that perhaps, I’m not learning it in the way that I should be, rather than thinking that I’m just not good at languages. I still struggle with certain topics and it is still frustrating to know that learning doesn’t come easily, but knowledge is power.

Why do we require certain subjects in school?

Since it’s outside of the scope of this book, there was no discussion about WHY we are teaching the subjects that we do. WHY do high school and college students need to take certain courses? WHY do we think it’s okay to place such pressure on a high stakes test for entrance to college? WHY do we require a generalist education when we really value deep learning? WHY is trigonometry and physics and four years of English required for college admissions? WHY can’t students pursue their own interests – and still get into college? Can you tell this is passionate topic of mine?

The authors’ tips on how to study are very valuable to a high school or college student, but in the end, it does seem just like a way to “game” the system. Are you really internalizing that information for the long haul? Is it relevant? They’ve noted that being an expert in one field does not transfer to another topic. Yes, making connections between different topics helps to strengthen your knowledge, but you still have to put in the effort to learn a new subject. Why not give high school students the choice of what topics to pursue – maybe ensuring that they choose three “easy” ones and three “hard” ones. But, the subject matter would be up to them.

Tips for Lifelong Learners

There were three major “tips” the authors gave for lifelong learners. That’s those of us who are not learning in a classroom, but are still learning by choice or for a career. To be honest, they sounded a lot like the things we do in project-based learning. So, maybe it’s not such a bad thing for teachers to incorporate into their classrooms…

Generation

In order to truly understand a topic, you need to generate something about it (hence, this blog post). Your grasp of the material starts out awkward, you aren’t sure where to begin or how to organize anything, but if you can just “blurt” something out, you have a place to begin. Then, your brain takes over and even when you are not consciously acting on that topic, your brain is still making connections. It’s still processing the subject. But you have to engage the material, not just passively absorb it. Suggestions include: creating an interactive program to show what you learned, writing a blog post, or drawing a picture that helps you to remember how everything is connected.

Reflection

While you are generating a piece (written, produced, etc.) on your newly acquired topic, be sure to reflect on what you have learned. What mistakes did you make and how could you correct them? What choice would you make instead of the one you chose? How do others in the field go about solving that problem? Can you visualize a new situation.

Elaboration

Practice and exposure to the topic is important, but deliberate practice matters more. Deliberate practice is hard. It is often regimented and you may need a coach or mentor to help you through. It makes me recall the words of a French teacher. She said that she employs a wide variety of French exposure (cartoons, books, visuals with words, songs) because to truly know another language, you have to “get it in your fingertips.” I think of that expression every time we tackle a new subject.

So what else have I gotten out of this book? I think it’s time to step up my French learning. I need to do more generation and elaboration. And I need to do more frequent testing. I’ve been using Duolingo, but I need to tie it to more consistent learning. It might be time to break out the flashcards.

 

LED Constellation Art Project

A picture of a light-up LED constellation - cancer the crab

Made by R, age 10.

When I was initially asked if I wanted to be a part of Space Camp, I was hesitant to say yes. I think space and stars are pretty amazing, but I do not feel confident teaching others about them. I have a lot of varied interests, but space is not one of them.

Then, the director asked me if I was interested in the art and craft class. Oh my – yes!!!

While they were completely open to new ideas, they had already thought about some sort of LED constellation art project. I thought that was perfect and right up my alley. I’ve been playing a lot with LEDs and I’ve always been interested in art. This was in November and I quickly began prototyping. I was hoping that we could hard wire the LEDs, but I expected that it might be too difficult for inexperienced students.

Research

Although my family and I like to look at the stars, I don’t have a strong background in space. I needed to read more about constellations and how to identify them. After choosing some books from the library, I realized that I needed something with accurate, but simple illustrations of the constellations. Thankfully, I stumbled upon these two activity books:

A picture of two constellation activity books

Activity books on constellations, written for kids

Wiring the LEDs

I probably should have started with getting the paint ‘just right,’ but instead I grabbed some black and glitter paint and did the quickest job I could…so that I could figure out how to light up the stars.

My first attempt was with copper tape and SMD LEDs. Fail.

My second attempt was with copper tape and Chibitronic LED stickers. Not bad, but I thought it might be too much of a dexterity issue to get them onto canvas. Fail.

My third attempt had me stripping copper wire and twisting LEDs. Success!!! But…way too difficult for young kids. Not to mention all of those exposed wires.

A picture of wires at the back of an art canvas

I’ve since found better wires to use, but this was your standard copper wire from Lowe’s, wired to a salvaged battery holder from an old toy.

Finally, I stumbled across these micro LED lights and knew that this would make it easy for the kids to light up their constellations. After another quick ‘night’ paint job, I made the prototype from which I based my lessons.

A picture of the big dipper in LED lights

The big dipper, which I’ve since learned is not a stand alone constellation, but rather part of a larger one, Ursa Major.

For my class, I was lucky enough to have two sessions that lasted an hour and a half. This left plenty of time for discussion and work time. On the first day, we talked about a variety of constellations, but I asked them over and over again, “what do you notice?” I wanted them to see that the night sky was made up of many different colors. There were heavy concentrations of stars in certain areas, but depending on the time, or location that the picture was taken, the stars might have been a light sprinkling.  I wasn’t teaching about the constellations (thank goodness), merely reinforcing the other lessons they were getting from the head of the Planetarium (the guy with the PhD in Astronomy). Thankfully, I found the series, ‘Crash Course for Kids,’ and showed my students the videos on groups of stars and the one on how to locate constellations.  Since we were painting and doing other art activities on the first day of camp, I wanted to draw their attention to the colors and patterns. To truly observe.

The students finished their canvases that first day and by our second session, they were dry and ready to light up. On that second day, I turned my focus to discussing circuits, LEDs and coin cell batteries. I even brought my homemade circuit blocks.

picture of batteries and siren

The output device only works when it’s a closed circuit. This is a rather annoying, but effective, buzzer.

LED Constellation Art Project – Materials Needed

  • 8 x 10 art canvas (from Hobby Lobby)
  • Paintbrushes & Palette
  • Toothbrush for flicking on glitter
  • Paint (see picture below)
  • Newspapers or butcher paper to cover table
  • LED light string
  • Hot glue gun and glue
  • Exacto knife
  • Pencil for tracing constellation
  • Tracing Paper
  • Carbon paper
  • Paper to test carbon paper
  • Micro LED string of lights

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Hand out small bits of carbon paper and let the kids figure out how it works.
  2. Choose a constellation from one of the activity books or draw your own.
  3. Trace or draw your constellation onto the tracing paper. Set aside.
    1. Note – If drawing, be sure your constellation fits in the middle of the canvas. BE MINDFUL of the wooden frame. The lights have to poke through from the back.
Picture of traced constellation

Tracing paper helped the students to make accurate constellations.

4. Place the carbon paper (dark side down) in the middle of the canvas. Set your traced constellation on top and retrace the constellation with your pencil. Remove the carbon paper and see that your constellation is on your canvas.

carbon paper transfer of constellation
5. Circle the stars so that students know to paint around them. Have students write their name on the back of the canvas. Include the name of the constellation, direction and months that you can find it in the sky. Example: Cygnus, December – February, facing North
6. Play around with the paints – mix orange and blue and see how you can get darker blue. Add gray to black, what happens? You can mix glitter paint into the black to get very subtle sparkles.

pain palette
7. Paint your canvas. Paint the sides first so they can dry.

pciture of black painted canvas

Circle the stars so your student knows to paint around them.

8. Take your canvas outside and bring along the toothbrush, the glitter paint and some red paint. Love the red stars.
9. The stiff bristles on an old toothbrush are used to make a nice splatter effect of stars.
10. Set aside and let dry for 24 hours.

LED constellation art project

Flick the glitter paint on at the end so it really pops!

Adding the LEDs to our LED Constellation Art Project

Since I really wanted to make this an art & tech project, I built the second day’s lessons around circuits and batteries. We started with a discussion on what they knew about LEDs and coin cell batteries, passed out some single LEDs and watched these two videos from Adafruit’s Circuit Playground: B is for Battery and D is for Diode.

A picture of a green LED wrapped around a coin cell battery

I handed out one coin cell battery and one LED and asked the students to figure out how to light it up.

Then, we unwrapped the micro LED set of lights and everyone put in the batteries to make sure the lights worked. Surprisingly, they all did.

The coordinators felt that it was safer if the adults used the exacto knives to cut into the canvases, so the kids each had their stars marked by a little “x.” Then, off they went to the pre-heated hot glue guns to secure the lights to their canvas.

A pciture of a canvas with an axacto knife

Make a small x with the knife so that the LED can poke through form the back.

Voila!

An instant project that will help students remember the layout of their favorite constellation. Coin cell batteries do not have a long shelf life (8 hours, I think), but thankfully, these lights come with an on/off switch.

A picture of the back of an art canvas

Tuck in the extra, leftover lights…or, hot glue them to the back so they stay in place.

 

SFC Space Camp

A picture of a canvas with LED lights that make the constellation cygnet

My first attempt at an LED constellation…now being used as a teaching tool.

SFC Space Camp

This week, I’m excited to be teaching and facilitating for Santa Fe College’s ‘Space Camp.’ I’m leading the art and craft component and we will be doing art and tech while being immersed in constellations and circuits. Here’s what we’re making:

A picture of a light-up LED constellation - cancer the crab

That’s the constellation Cancer the Crab. Made by R, age 10.

Detailed instructions to follow…

Book Review – Mindstorms

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A picture of the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

As relevant today as it was 35 years ago…

Target Audience: Adults (especially teachers, parents)
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. 2nd ed. Perseus Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993.

Mindstorms

It’s taken me awhile to write this review, partly because I have so much to say and yet, I’m not sure how to organize everything I’ve read. Quite frankly, I really need to read the book again, but I had to return it since I borrowed it via interlibrary loan. It was as if I found myself at an amusement park, but only had an hour left before it closed. What would I do and what was the most important thing that I wanted to see? Sometimes, you just need to sit and think about it. That being said, I am going to attempt to provide an overview, but wanted to throw it out there that I could have used a little more time to digest the information.

A picture of the Table of Contents from the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

I do think I understood the overall point of his book, namely that students should be learning with more real-life experiences, thus constructing their own knowledge, and computers can be used to help them reflect their learning. However, he seems to differ in his educational thinking from the Montessori method because he acknowledges that interest plays a big role in how well a student learns. For example, in a primary Montessori classroom, students are encouraged to explore their own interests, but there is a limited prepared environment from which they can explore. Papert seems to advocate for an open-ended, real-life curriculum where a student can explore their own interests in daily life, but still be guided by a facilitator.  I thought it sounded a lot like project-based learning with a little bit of homeschooling thrown in.

But ‘teaching without curriculum’ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply ‘leaving the child alone.’ It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture.
– p. 32

Throughout the book, he uses his own interests – gears and mathematics – to make the case for creative computer use in schools and learning. In chapter one, he discusses the culture of computers and the hopes (and fears) teachers and educators have for their use in school. He mentions that there is indeed a potential for students to only consume computer programs, to use them to idly fill up their time, but that others will use them to make further explorations. It might allow children to tackle complex subjects at an earlier age because physical barriers, such as handwriting and spelling, will be eliminated by the use of computers.

Though the book was originally published in 1980, this second edition was published in 1993. So, how can a book on ‘computers in schools’ still be relevant more than 20 years later?

A picture of the opening screen of a Scratch project.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. Programmed completely by R, age 9.5.

Sadly, it’s incredibly relevant because computers are still primarily being used to transmit information. It’s top-down learning where a teacher dictates what a student will learn rather than using the computer to help a child to express the concepts that they learned and make their own changes. Papert advocates for using computers to help students see what they are learning, for them to construct their own knowledge based on the programs they are running. While the topic they tested included geometry concepts, he acknowledges that computers could and should be used in other ways.

A picture from the book, Mindstorms. It shows simple line drawings that could be made withthe robot turtle.

A sampling of projects that students could make, and while doing so would learn key math concepts.

He and his colleagues created the LOGO computer language and used it to teach geometry. Since Papert’s background, training and interests are in mathematics, he uses math as a backdrop to explain his theories and his desire to see our thinking made visible. This is especially relevant to me as I am always on the look out for more reality-based ways of using math with my own children. I will admit that he sometimes lost me during his mathspeak (it has been 25 years since I took geometry), but it really isn’t about learning geometry, it’s about learning how to make learning visible so that the students can recognize their mistakes, fix their “bugs” and learn how to learn. He was definitely an advocate of a growth mindset before it became a ubiquitous term.

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are ‘smart people’ and ‘dumb people’…as a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of ‘dumb people’ or, more often, to a group of people ‘dumb at x.
– p.43

Teaching fifth graders how to program with the simplified text-based language of LOGO was not meant to teach them to be programmers, but rather to help them express their ideas of geometry. Papert wasn’t talking about specific programs (or apps), rather he was discussing learning in general, thinking about thinking, and using computers to express that learning. In fact, he meant for the LOGO turtle to show them where they made mistakes so that they could learn to fix them – in context. No teacher required, thus making the learning more valuable and sticky.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own "bug," by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own “bug,” by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

This book has made it very clear that the creators of the icon-based programming language, Scratch, were following in his work and wanted to honor his vision of constructionist learning.  Having read some of their papers on Scratch and taken the course on Tinkering from the Exploratorium Museum, I was able to understand much more about how and why these tools were developed.

A picture of 3 AAA batteries, alligator clips and a tiny lightbulb.

I made these circuit blocks while taking the Tinkering with STEM course. A great way to help students learn about direct current.

As might be expected from a book on education from a computer scientist, his theories and main ideas are sometimes muddled and he seems to jump from one abstract topic to the next. His work with LOGO was partially based on his work with Jean Piaget in the 1960s and partially from his own work at MIT where he worked on artificial intelligence. His theories are sometimes unclear, I think, because he doesn’t want to have a prescribed curriculum. Also, there’s the question of cognitive, age-based abilities. Was he advocating for preschoolers to use a computer to reflect their learning? I don’t know.

That being said, I really enjoyed being challenged by this book. It made me rethink some of my own teachings and I am now ready to tackle the Making Thinking Visible book that has been sitting on my shelf since last fall.

A picture of the book, Making Thinking Visible.

From the Harvard-based project that tried to help students see (and change) their own learning.

 

 

 

 

 

Circuit Blocks, Circuit Cards

Circuit Blocks

In anticipation of teaching next week, I have been creating more hands-on activities to go along with my lesson on circuits and batteries. Circuit blocks, circuit cards, sewn circuit components…

A picture of 3 AAA batteries, alligator clips and a small, un-lit lightbulb

This circuit is open and the light bulb is not lit.

A picture of 3 AAA batteries, alligator clips and a tiny lightbulb.

These circuit blocks are a great way to help students learn about direct current.

Last summer, I made these wooden blocks during the free, online course from The Exploratorium Museum. The course, ‘Tinkering Fundamentals‘, showcased circuits and how to use these blocks as part of a constructionist approach to learning. For me, they were somewhat frustrating to make, so the thought of making more was not that appealing. Thankfully, I recently stumbled across these paper-based circuit cards.

 

A picture of paper circuits wth copper tape and connected with binder clips to keep the electricity connected.

The copper tape conducts the electricity that flows from the battery. When the switch is pushed, the LED will light up.

A picture of homemade cardboard circuit cards to teach about direct current

I used a switch from the Lectrify set, but had to solder it to the copper tape.

Circuit Cards

I had everything on hand – copper tape, binder clips, extra battery holders and some Chibitronic LED stickers (which made the whole process a heck of a lot easier). Add in an old cereal box and I was able to quickly make these cards, all while waiting for the soldering iron to heat up.

It was really nice to make something with copper tape, especially something that works consistently. For the last few days, I have been messing around with copper tape and Lectrify components, but nothing was working. I even tried conductive paint, but that didn’t work either. I’ve come to realize that soldering the components might be the key.

Unfortunately, that’s disappointing for a teacher who isn’t allowed to have soldering irons in a classroom. And, perhaps, isn’t quite ready for her young students to have access to such tools.

WizzBangz owner Gwen Thompson turned me on to these kid-friendly circuit components.

WizzBangz owner Gwen Thompson turned me on to these kid-friendly circuit components. The parts break off the board when you are ready to use them elsewhere.

The Chibitronic stickers eliminate the need for soldering tiny SMD LEDs, but at a $1 per sticker, they aren’t exactly affordable for a multi-student classroom, whereas the Lectrify components are reusable and nicely priced at $5 per set.

But, this is just the beginning of my research with the Lectrify components. I’m excited to continue researching new ways to use them. They were designed to work with Legos and my boys are already thinking of ways to test them. Up next for me? I want to try hard-wiring the components. Or, try using them in sewn circuit blocks.

A picture of yellow alligator clips connected to a coinc ell battery and a green LED

Taking an idea from The Exploratorium, I’m making multiple iterations of circuit blocks to help my students become more familiar with circuits.

But, in the meantime, I’m going to make a few more circuit cards. I need more battery holders and my ten-year-old suggested making cards of single strips of copper tape. He thinks it might be easier to create circuits. I think he might have a point.

 

My Kids Hate Math

To be perfectly honest…they don’t really hate math. Rather, they hate the repetitive practice of doing math problems on paper.

A picture of Scholastic's Mega-Fun Card-Game Math

A good resource to help reinforce math vocabulary and simple memorization

My kids hate math

I can’t remember disliking math in school. It was pretty easy (except for those proofs in geometry) and I liked how it was complete. There was (seemingly) no open-ended math problems. There was an answer and it was my job to ferret it out and find it. Plus, I was good at memorizing…something I’m sad to say has been greatly diminished by motherhood. Plus, I was good enough that I didn’t have to take any math in college. So, I didn’t. Why is that?

In an attempt to change my children’s attitudes toward math, I’ve been seeking out different math-based activities to help them realize how useful math is in our daily lives. Here are some ways we’ve been playing with math.

1. We played store.
Then, we went to the real store with some money. I gave them each $20 in cash and asked them to buy all of the ingredients for a particular meal. They had their list and my ten-year-old had to add the cost as we went. He had to add up his items (on paper) and be sure that he had  enough money to pay for his groceries. He even finagled some junk food because he had left over money!

A picture of hand-colored paper maps for "sale"

A homemade store is a great way to learn about money.

A picture of money and a calculator.

The kids made their own money and determined what they wanted to “sell” at the store.

2. Before playing store, we played Money Bags. A lot.
I have followed these activities with some paper-based problems (adding and subtracting money with static decimals), but they don’t mind these nearly as much…perhaps because they understand the value of being able to add and subtract with money?

A picture of kids playing the game, Money Bags

A short game that has kids adding money as they “earn” it doing chores.

3. We use legos.
We use them for discussions on area, for counting and creating, and for game markers when playing math games. Yes, they get distracted and start building other things. But, I can usually redirect them. If I can’t, then we put the legos away.

A picture of a sheet of paper with a 1-9 multiplication grid. Also shown are two card - 2, 6

Products and Factors Game from Scholastic’s Mega-Fun Card Games for Math

4. Games, games and more games.
Multiplication Bingo, SUM 20 and ‘Factors and Products’ are paper-based games that we have been using lately. This book has been a wonderful resource and reinforces concepts without resorting to boring paper and pencil work. My kids are in love with this app, and although I don’t think it has a lot of educational value, they think it’s fun to do repetitive math since you get to be a ninja in-between problems.

We also love Zeus on the Loose, Rat-a-Tat-Cat and Addition/Subtraction War.

5. Bedtime Math – Books & App
The parent of one of my students turned me on to these fabulous books. My kids love to listen to these and will beg me to keep reading. Recently, I stumbled across this article and was delighted to see that the FREE Bedtime Math app has been scientifically proven to raise math scores. Woo! I downloaded it that evening to our ipad.

6. Write down their feelings toward math.
Usually, a little reminder about choosing a growth mindset  is enough to get my kids back on track with the right attitude. If that doesn’t work, I recommend letting your child write down their feelings about math on a separate sheet of paper – before doing the math. Are they anxious? worried? hate to struggle or be wrong? Acknowledge their feelings by letting them express them and listen as they describe their feelings about math. After acknowledging these feelings, move on. I don’t argue that they are smart enough or diligent enough to master math. I know they can do those things…and I think they do too. So, I ask them if these feelings help them to learn their math and they say no…and well, that’s that.

A picture of a black line made from electrical tape and a lego EV3 line-following robot

R tested out the robot’s line-following abilities – using the color sensor.

7. Teach them to use Scratch or Lego Mindstorms.
Scratch was meant to be used the way a painter uses paint. Students certainly learn about computer programming by using it, but they can also use it for other projects, such as demonstrating their knowledge of a particular historical event.  As they progress and want to learn how to do more things with Scratch, the more they will encounter various math concepts, such as the xy-grid, random chance or operations. The best part is that students will choose to encounter these complex problems, and all they need is a good facilitator to help make the connection to advanced math concepts. The same could be said for the complexity of the Lego Mindstorms brick (and robots in general). You are introducing very complex terminology (compare, degrees, etc.) before they have technically “learned” about them in math class. And, although they might not grasp the concept completely this way, it will make it much easier to visualize when they do come across it.

8. Be mindful of others who “aren’t good at math.”
We are very social creatures who are heavily influenced by others (even if we try not to be). This is especially true with our attitudes concerning math. Some of us have a lot of anxiety about it and if we pass that onto our children, we can negatively influence them. I think my children might be parroting some friends who struggle with math and in the interest of solidarity, decided that they too don’t like math. Gently remind your children that they use math daily and even if they struggle with it – that’s because their brains are growing. That’s how we learn.

If that’s not tough enough…here’s another study that says that parental attitude toward math can affect children, but only if you help with homework!

9. Spend time doing some math with them.
I know this contradicts the above statement, at least if you are math-phobic, but as a homeschool parent, it might be in my best interest to do some math with them. Notice – I said with them, not for them. I will often try to bow out of doing math with my kids. After all, they need the practice, not me. Besides, I have plenty of other work that I need to be doing. However, I recently read the book Mindstorms, and I realized that they might not see the value in it because they don’t notice when I use math. After all, they see me reading and writing quite often.

It’s something we should consider as teachers…to work on some math…and let our children see us do so. Or, come up with a different way of ‘teaching’ math that doesn’t require abstract learning and memorizing and find a way for them to construct their own knowledge about advanced math concepts. At my house, that might mean I need to invest in some upper-level Montessori materials…

A picture of a K'nex record player with a price tag of $100 and a model of the solar system - sitting on a shelf

This K’nex record player costs $100 because it took a while to make.

 

What is Artisan Education?

Five years ago, our eldest son wanted to be a turtle for Halloween. We couldn't find a non-Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one, so we made it out of cardboard using paper mache and paint.

This turtle shell is made from cardboard using paper mache and acrylic paint. Handmade pants too! We couldn’t find what he wanted, so we made it ourselves!

Meet the twenty-first century artisans. They understand the value they are creating. It’s tactile. It’s real. They made it because they wanted it themselves. They can tell you exactly how everything is made and where their materials come from. They blend the proven tools of the past with the current tools of today, picking and choosing whatever suits their aesthetic.
– David Lang, from his book, Zero to Maker.

They Understand the Value They are Creating

I love this quote from Lang’s book, Zero to Maker. I love it because he values handcrafted items and ideas, but also because Lang’s thinking mimics my own. At the beginning of his “maker” journey, Lang questioned his education and wondered if he could teach himself something about power tools and underwater submarines. I love that he didn’t know where to begin, but started anyway. To me, this is an artisan education. A self-directed quest to create something from raw materials. It’s a “back to the land” movement, but with technology instead of food production.

According to my WordPress stats, my most popular keyword search is centered around the phrase, “what is artisan education?” Unfortunately, I doubt all of those inquiries are for our small tech business (though, it’s nice when they are).

Rather, I imagine people are looking for how skilled craftsmen, known as artisans, became educated.  The librarian in me wants to do a reference interview and guide the web searcher to a better resource, such as this site from The Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.  Perhaps, they are looking for the history of how artisans were educated, which was primarily through apprenticeships. However, the artisan in me wants to explain my art, my training, my self-directed path of education and the small business that grew out of it.

Picture of a simple circuit using copper tape to conduct electricity and light an LED

To learn more about how circuits work, I used copper tape to light up a SMD LED. It’s an idea from The Exploratorium.

Meet the 21st Century Artisans

I consider myself to be an artisan. In fact, I think every good teacher is an artisan. However, I can also sew, knit, cook, manage a business, find information, and facilitate learning for a number of topics. Of course, I can do a lot more than that, but I’m especially proud that I taught myself how to sew, how to cook and how to knit. No one gave me a grade and no one stood beside me forcing me to do it. I struggled and fought for every piece of knowledge I earned.

School was fun because I loved learning and the work was easy. When I got a job, I enjoyed the novelty of it, but after a while it became tedious and monotonous. I missed learning. I thought about a PhD, but I had just graduated. I couldn’t go back to school. I needed to learn basic life skills, not just “school” skills. It took awhile, but I realized that if I wanted to keep learning, I was going to have to figure out how to do that on my own. I thought of something I wanted to learn and landed on sewing. I wanted to make my own clothes. I liked a certain style, but couldn’t always find the right color or style and disliked spending so much money on something I wasn’t too crazy about.

How Everything is Made and Where the Materials Come From

My mom knew how to sew and helped me make a few things when I was young, but I didn’t retain any of that knowledge. After running the gauntlet through AP high school classes, varsity sports and a part-time job, such frivolous skills seemed unnecessary and useless. What was the point of learning how to sew when you could just buy clothes? Purchasing pre-made clothing seemed to be a much more efficient use of time.

Like David Lang, I realized how very little I knew. Oh, I could study for a test and receive a diploma, but most of that knowledge was distributed from the top-down. Teachers or professors laid out the material, or pointed me in a direction, and off I went. To figure out how to sew, I needed to make my own path. I needed to struggle with sewing and no one was going to grade me (or pay me) for my progress. To top it off, I had to find my own teachers and resources.

Penguin fabric that became pajama pants for my boys.

It’s pinned and ready to go! This penguin fabric became pajama pants for my boys.

They Made it Because They Wanted it Themselves

Slowly, I learned how to sew and how to find the information to teach myself. I struggled and realized that to learn something well meant that I had to try again and again and again. I had to be content with poorly constructed garments because my technique wasn’t good enough. I had to find other teachers and “waste” money on trying new patterns and abandoning the ones I couldn’t figure out. I had to pay for classes and get out and make friends with people who  knew how to sew and quilt. And, I did. It took awhile and it wasn’t always pretty, but I did it.

I became a twenty-first century artisan because I wanted to make something that was just right for me. I wanted to reflect my own style and to take care of myself and my family with these time-honored skills.

A picture of 4 double-pointed kneedles and a tube being knit.

Learning to tightly knit a tube was made much easier thanks to books and YouTube.

Artisan Education

Which brings me to our business – Artisan Education. Artisan was born out of a need for hands-on classes for our (then) six-year-old. We wanted to help him follow his passion to be a robot engineer. Yes, he truly said that at age six. A few years ago, he was a solid right-brain learner who loved (and still loves) building with legos. He wasn’t interested in the traditional tasks of reading and writing. He wanted to build and work with his hands. A Montessori child if there ever was one, yes?

I sought out ways to incorporate his interests into his daily learning. He still had to work on learning how to read, but I also incorporated his desire to be a robot engineer. I looked for classes in our area, but there weren’t a lot of options – especially for his age. So, we stuck with legos until six months later, I discovered Lego Education. The rest, they say, is history.

A picture of Lego Education's kit, Simple Machines

The first Lego Education kit he did – at age 7. Simple Machines.

Here was a company who was using hands-on materials to teach the things my son actually wanted to learn. When I realized that they made tools for learning computer science concepts, my business was born. I could reach other students who had the same interest and help them to learn about computer programming, but still stay to true to my Montessori background. All of the materials are concrete, hands-on tools and offer multiple creative options. Repetition is encouraged and so is using the materials in a new way.  I also discovered other age-appropriate tools for kids to work with, specifically the icon-based programming language, Scratch.

They Blend the Tools of the Past with the Current Tools of Today

We named our business Artisan Education because we think that learning is an artisanal process. The type of material or learning path is going to be different for each person – even if those same people want to be robot engineers. Each path will be unique. We want to honor that type of learning and crafting. We strive to include a lot of creative paths for discovery, while still allowing students to work at their own pace. We utilize our tools of the past (the Montessori philosophy) with current tools of today (Lego WeDo, Ozobots, etc.)

A picture of a computer with Scratch on the screen.

Icon-based programming tools, like Scratch, help make writing code more accessible…and fun.

In addition to our technology-based summer camps, we also design and review online courses, putting our instructional design skills to good use. Like good teaching, high-quality instructional design requires a unique approach. And, like a librarian, you need to conduct an interview to determine what the client truly needs. These are the tools of our past and we are combining them with the current tools of today. We are twenty-first century artisans.

Picture of tomato soup with a heart drawn with cream.

Knowing how to cook – and how to improvise – is an important skill. My husband made this tomato-based soup for me on Valentine’s Day.

PBL – Geography

IMG_2024

Student Choice

Most of my favorite “teaching methods” put students’ choices at the forefront of their learning.

I know!!! You must be completely shocked that a Montessori-trained educator would value choice and self-direction! All kidding aside, a lot of research is saying the same thing. It’s easier to learn something if there’s an interest and often, that learning starts with a question. For older students, there’s problem-based learning,  where students collaborate to find a solution to a problem (or answer a question).

At our homeschool co-op meetings, we’ve been doing project-based learning. Our students range in age from five-years-old through twelve. Each of them are going to approach a topic differently. We need to honor that. Last semester, the parents choice physics as the topic of inquiry. Then, we supported our children through various explorations into windmills, bridges and catapults.

This spring, we’re focusing on geography, specifically an in-depth country study.  It’s self-directed because students choose the country they would like to study. They also decide how they want to present the information that they’ve learned. In this way, it somewhat mimics project-based homeschooling. It’s not quite as open-ended as project-based homeschooling, but it can be a good way to stay on track with project-based learning.

As an educator (not just a homeschool parent), I think it’s important to allow students the freedom to decide how long they want to study their country – and require that they present their information to someone else. In this case, my children will present what they’ve learned to their fellow learners at co-op.

Although it is more structured than unschooling, there is a lot of self-direction and choice. Maybe we should invent a new word – Monteschooling? Lots of choice, but with some guided direction (constraints) and adult facilitators around to help continue the learning when they get stuck (or want to give up).

Part of the "city" project - the boys were laying out and creating their own city.

Part of the “city” project – the boys were laying out and creating their own city with clay.

Project-based Learning – Geography

On our first day of “class,” I stood in front of our students and let them know they needed to choose a country to research, and that by next week I wanted two books on their topic. Since almost all of these kids are younger than age twelve, I wanted them to stick with books. Web research is great, but it requires some higher-order thinking to be able to determine a safe, reliable and accurate web site. For now, books are key. The obvious exception is the CIA World FactBook, since it takes the guess work out of determining whether or not it is an authoritative site.

Picture of kids' books on egypt and ancient Egypt.

Most of C’s books are centered around Ancient Egypt…not necessarily present day Egypt.

Then, I started asking questions. I suggested that they might want to pretend they are going to visit their country. “What would you like to go see first? What language would you need to understand? What type of food do they eat in your country?”

None of these are required questions to answer, and there is no standard form on how to give their presentation. Instead, we left it as open as possible, allowing for the fact that some students will go into more depth, while others might just draw a picture and point out one or two facts.

Since we have a large age range of students, each family was free to put more constraints on their children’s projects. One of our parents is requiring her two children (ages 10.5 and 12) to complete a presentation every 3 weeks. I asked my children to choose one of the countries that still exist from our study of ancient times, but didn’t put a time requirement on their learning. If they want to study one country for the next 3 months, I’m perfectly fine with that.

Making clay models of the pyramids in Giza

Looking at a library book to make the pyramids at Giza.

My kiddos decided to study Greece and Egypt, although the six-year-old is pretty fascinated with ancient Egypt, and I’m not sure how much present day Egypt will feature in his final presentation. I don’t care because he is reading all sorts of books and creating items to reflect his learning. For my oldest, I have asked him to include a works cited page in his presentation, but otherwise, he is only limited by his imagination. I think a large part of his project might be devoted to Greek Mythology, since we have recently read Rick Riordan’s fabulous series on the Greek myths.

I try not to put my judgement on their ideas or choices, though I know it happens. I try to offer multiple suggestions and leave resources (books, videos, etc.) around the house for them to discover on their own (if they didn’t find them at the library). Since they don’t know everything that is out there (nor do I), I think it’s a bit unfair to step back and assume they will know where to look. That’s part of their training in teaching themselves – exposing them to resources (the library, the Internet, local businesses and government offices). It’s not completely self-directed, but I do try to (mostly) respect their choices.

Picture of a kid's desk - pencil, paper, and opened book

R has decided to make a book about Greece. I sketched out a storyboard so he could plan out his book.

As such, I was asking my six-year-old how he wanted to show off some of his knowledge about Egypt and threw out a number of suggestions – a drawing of the pyramids, a written poster, clay models of the artifacts he found. He immediately jumped on the idea of making clay models of the pyramids and I made sure to follow through when we were at home that week.

picture of homemade clay pyramids

We have a big slab of clay on hand, so it’s an easy way to extend the learning.

I even managed to make a connection between the pyramid from our Montessori geometric solids and the pyramids he was making. Nothing formal, just an observation about the pyramids and how many sides they have, etc. He made sure to point out the four sides on his pyramids and I quickly agreed. It’s a slight connection, a teaching moment in the midst of an innocent art project. But, it helps to solidify small connections of learning, while reinforcing the  the value of a teacher-facilitator.

We’re continuing with projects. My youngest is feeling that his might be coming to an end, and my oldest is trying to meet a 4-H deadline. This week promises to be a flurry of making, writing and organizing. I can’t wait.